Why livelihoods perspectives still matter

Livelihoods perspectives have become increasingly central to discussions of rural development over the past few decades. They have offered a way of integrating sectoral concerns and rooting development in the specifics of different settings.

Central to livelihoods perspectives is an understanding of what people do to make a living in diverse circumstances and social contexts.

In my new book, Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development, I offer an overview of the key debates and suggest some important new directions.


Together with many others, this work has been pioneered at the Institute of Development Studies – from classic studies of seasonality, livelihood change and vulnerability in the 1980s and 90s, to the presentation of more synthetic frameworks in the 1990s. Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway’s classic paper of 1992 was followed by my 1998 paper that proposed a Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, based on work at the time with colleagues in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mali, and led by then IDS Fellow Jeremy Swift.

These perspectives contributed to a major change in the UK Department for International Development’s programming and funding approaches, and many other agencies adopted various forms of a ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’. There followed multiple responses: huge numbers of studies, consultancies, trainings and communications efforts, many carried out by IDS researchers and partners.

But what has happened since? Livelihoods is no longer the buzzword it was. The fickle faddism of development has been taken over by others since.

However, the underlying arguments of livelihoods analysis still have relevance. Livelihoods approaches remain an essential lens on questions of rural development, poverty and wellbeing. But they need to be situated in a better understanding of the political economy of agrarian change.

Drawing on critical agrarian and environmental studies, the book poses some new questions that challenge and extend earlier livelihoods frameworks.

Four dimensions of a new politics of livelihoods are suggested: a politics of interests, individuals, knowledge and ecology. Together, these suggest new ways of conceptualizing rural and agrarian issues, with profound implications for thinking and action.

Comments on the book

“[This book] makes a potent argument for reinstating an expansive perspective on livelihoods, informed by the political economy of agrarian change, at the centre of current concerns with overcoming rural inequality and poverty” (Henry Bernstein, SOAS, University of London)

“Nurturing sustainable livelihoods for the poor is not just about recognising their exceptional skill at making a living, which includes diversifying livelihoods, jumping scales, and nesting home places within productive networks, but also mitigating their vulnerability to land grabs, drought and floods, natural disasters, corporate greed and venal politics” (Simon Batterbury, University of Melbourne)

“…Places livelihood thinking in context, explores its applications, explains its limits and – perhaps most important of all – persuades the reader that being political and being practical are absolutely not mutually exclusive options in development, whether writing about it or working within it” (Tony Bebbington, Clark University)

“Concise yet comprehensive, combining and drawing on the perspectives of many disciplines, accessible to all readers, professionally impeccable, and on top of all this, original in its analysis and extension into new fields, this book is a wonderful contribution to development thinking and action” (Robert Chambers, IDS)

Buy the book

Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development is published in the ‘short books for big ideas’ agrarian and peasant studies series from Practical Action Publishing. The book is available at a 10% discount from the publishers. It is also available for a special discounted price for a limited period from the IDS Bookshop.

livelihoodscoverSustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development
by Ian Scoones
Practical Action Publishing
August 2015

Hardback: £22.46
Paperback: £9.86

Reviews, synopsis and ordering info (publishers’ website)

Buy from the IDS bookshop (£10.95)

Image: Woman trader in Accra’s Makola Market, Ghana, by Caroline Beaumont, reproduced with permission from Transaid under a Creative Commons licence